Review: Ultimate Ears UE Mini Boom
After moving its well-regarded speaker lineup to the "Logitech UE" brand name, leveraging its acquisition of earphone maker Ultimate Ears, Logitech is doing a little additional rebranding using Boom -- the name it debuted with an attractive tube-shaped $200 speaker earlier this year. Only half a year after releasing the Logitech UE Mobile Boombox, the company has debuted UE Mini Boom ($100), a modestly tweaked version that brings Boom's relatively uncommon dual-speaker wireless pairing mode to a smaller and more affordable form factor. UE Mini Boom otherwise looks and works identically to its predecessor, so most of this review comes from the Mobile Boombox's, with notes where things have changed.
Measuring 4.3” wide by 2.3” tall by 2.6” deep, UE Mini Boom uses a combination of colored metallic and rubberized surfaces to form a rounded-off box of thick rubber, matching or contrasting in color with painted metal front and rear grilles. This time, Logitech offers UE Mini Boom in three black variations—one with a green grille, one with a red grille, and the last with a black grille—as well as a purple body with a green grille, or an orange body with a white grille. A tiny blue light is centered right between the rubber and metal surfaces, indicating power and pairing status, while three large, pressure-sensitive buttons on the top clearly indicate volume down, pairing, and volume up features. A tiny microphone hole is found behind the pairing button.
An on/off switch, micro-USB charging port, and auxiliary audio port are all on the back, but Logitech has left off their labeling as the features are pretty obvious. By contrast, large UE logos have been embossed into the left and right sides, matching rather than contrasting against the color of the rubber. Logitech includes a relatively short Micro-USB charging cable in each package, but leaves out the wall power adapter that was bundled with the UE Mobile Boombox.
Just as we said about the UE Mobile Boombox, UE Mini Boom’s specifications are respectable—a measured word given today’s very aggressive competition in the sub-$100 wireless speaker space. There are two 1” drivers inside for audio, a 10-hour rechargeable battery, and a Bluetooth wireless chip capable of remembering eight devices, with up to two connected at the same time. Although Logitech promises Bluetooth streaming will work at up to 50-foot distances, we found that it only worked reliably at Bluetooth’s typical 33-foot range; audio drop-outs became more common as we moved past that point. It emits pleasantly musical chimes when powering on, pairing, and turning off when you flip the rear switch. Speakerphone functionality is acceptable; callers told us that the UE Mini Boom didn’t sound quite as clear as the iPhone’s integrated speakerphone hardware, but it was close enough.
Due both to its small size and relatively low price, UE Mini Boom is in a position where it can’t sound great as a speaker on an absolute scale, just a relative one—and even then, it’s in the “good” zone. With only 4.3” of width to accommodate the twin 1” speakers, there’s not a lot of room for stereo separation in the single speaker, and as is common with audio drivers of that size, the sound skews significantly towards the midrange rather than crisp highs or deep lows. Consequently, the audio is reasonably clear but not particularly dynamic, and you can expect to hear only modest left- and right-channel separation from an apparent field of around six inches. With both the iOS device and the speaker at their maximum levels, the peak volume level falls short of small room-filling; there’s enough sonic power to let you hear music at your desk or from a bookshelf, but not much more.
This all changes substantially if you’re willing to invest an additional $100 in a second UE Mini Boom. Just like the UE Boom before it, UE Mini Boom features a dual Bluetooth streaming mode that lets you wirelessly link two speakers, with an app that flips the speakers between left/right stereo separated mode or mirrored double performance. With both speakers on, not only do you get the benefit of a potentially very wide stereo field—you choose the speaker distance—but also a louder volume level that certainly fills a small room. While the audio quality doesn’t magically become better in dual mode, and distortion becomes very obvious at high volumes, regular amplitude listening with two speakers is really quite nice. Apart from susceptibility to interference from other Bluetooth devices, such as brief signal drops and little pops when the speakers were used near a wireless keyboard, the streaming works pretty much as expected.
That said, some user interface inconveniences make UE Mini Boom less than totally ideal as a full time dual-speaker listening option. While Logitech’s UE Mini Boom app is pretty easy to use and slick, it’s a software crutch to enable a feature that the UE Mini Boom wasn’t originally designed to accommodate. There’s no special dual-pairing button on the speaker itself, so you need to either load the app and re-pair the second speaker every time you want to use dual mode, or hit a button combination (pairing plus volume) on one speaker, then double-tap the Bluetooth button on the second speaker. Logitech could easily have switched the power on-off switch to a three-position dual on/single on/off toggle, or added another button, but it didn’t. Moreover, although volume is synchronized immediately after pairing, volume changes made to one speaker aren’t mirrored by the other. Earlier dual-streaming speakers we tested this year, such as Soundfreaq’s Sound Platform 2, handle dual-mode and synchronization much better.
Like the UE Mobile Boombox before it, there’s no question that UE Mini Boom is a very good little portable speaker: the market hasn’t changed dramatically over the past half-year, so its addition of a dual Bluetooth streaming mode and omission of a wall adapter keep UE Mini Boom at the same B+ rating as its predecessor. As we noted previously, this model is not quite the rival of its top $100 competitors in sound quality or volume level, but its compact size, color options, and other little frills make it appealing nonetheless. Due to the user interface inconveniences of initiating dual-streaming mode, we wouldn’t rush to recommend it for that particular purpose—it actually almost lost our strong general recommendation over its implementation—but if you’re willing to re-pair it and make manual volume adjustments, or just use it in solo mode, you’ll be satisfied. Based on past history, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Logitech use this model as a springboard for a more completely redesigned $100 version in 2014, but it’s a good start for now.